Editor’s Note: Katie Hurley is a psychotherapist and author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
My teen daughter had a simple question for me following the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
“What does this mean for women right now?”
I was sitting at our kitchen table, still processing my own shock. It was a question I didn’t want to have to answer for her.
What followed – and she knew she was asking her therapist mom – was a detailed conversation about bodily autonomy, consent, and comprehensive healthcare. She needed information to process what she’d seen, because Instagram Stories (where she first learned about the decision) don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
She asked one follow-up question: “How can I help?”
Children and teens tend to feel stuck when it comes to working through their feelings around complex issues that impact our country. Our right to vote is often referenced as a way to make a difference, but they don’t yet have that right.
“As it is, children and teens often feel powerless, but kids today are growing up in a country that feels – and increasingly is – unsafe,” said Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor and author of “Middle School Matters.” “We tend to think of hate crimes and school shootings when it comes to safety, but it’s just as scary to lose the ability to make decisions about your own body.”
(While some people are celebrating the repeal of Roe v. Wade, 61% of US registered voters agree with the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released June 22. And the younger adult respondents were more likely to to support legal abortion in most or all cases.)
Create brave spaces at home
Young people can make more of a difference than they think, though, and that begins with understanding the problem.
Children and teens talk when they trust their parents to listen and give them – or help them find – accurate and unbiased information. Kids need not just safe spaces, but brave spaces where they can share their fears, ask questions, and process their emotions.
Parents can open the door to difficult conversations with questions like, “What are you seeing about the repeal on Roe v. Wade on social media? I know this is a lot to take in. Do you have questions?” For younger children who don’t have access to social media, explain what they might be overhearing. “A lot of people are talking about people making choices about having babies right now,” is a good starting point.
As with many emotionally charged topics, this is not a one-time conversation. Keep checking in, especially with teens.
Talk about the meaning of reproductive rights
Nearly 300,000 women die worldwide during pregnancy and childbirth every year, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the poorest and most marginalized populations face the greatest risks due to discrimination and inadequate access to healthcare services. Reproductive medicine is healthcare, and access to appropriate care for all birthing people is necessary to reduce those numbers, both in the United States and abroad.
In conversations with teens, it’s always a good idea to first ask what they know, and then discuss what that means. Reproductive rights center around the legal right to make decisions about your own body’s reproductive capacity, including the right to contraception, abortion and fertility treatment.
Follow this up with the nuance that is often left out of these conversations. It’s important to understand that not everyone in the United States – or other countries –has access to the comprehensive healthcare they need to make decisions about reproductive health, including young people, the LGBTQIA+ community, people from low income and rural communities, and communities of color.
For younger children, you can simplify your explanation by saying, “It is the right to make your own decisions about your body, including having or not having a baby.” The bottom line is that every person should have access to healthcare and accurate information to make the best decisions for their bodies.
Validate their feelings
Even for children and teens growing up in states that protect reproductive rights, the removal of federal protection for bodily autonomy can feel anxiety-producing. Kids are likely to think about their peers in states who no longer have these protections, and might wonder what that means for their futures.
“Adults can help kids by acknowledging that their fears are rational and real,” Fagell said. Phrases such as, “I can see how much distress this is causing,” and, “I understand why you’re feeling this way right now,” communicate empathy and compassion. Parents can’t sweep away negative emotions, but they can sit through the distress with their kids and help them feel understood.
Promote a sense of agency
When children and teens feel helpless, the world can feel like a scary place. When adults empower them to find ways to make a difference, be it by raising funds or using their voices in some way, they experience hope.
This fight isn’t over for those of us who support reproductive rights, and that’s something children and teens need to know. Organizations, groups and individuals all over this country are working to restore reproductive rights on a federal level and/or at a state level. Children and teens can help the movement.
“Kids suffer more when they feel like passive victims of fate,” warned Fagell, “so it’s helpful to identify even small steps they can take to advocate for themselves and others.” Fagell suggested writing letters to legislators or raising money for organizations that champion reproductive rights. Families can also make signs and join peaceful protests in their communities.
Keep the door open
There’s a tendency to jump on teachable moments when weighty topics hit the news cycle, but then we move on to the next thing before young people feel fully versed. The truth is that conversations about reproductive health are complex and should be ongoing, as they are also related to sexual health and other issues that directly impact young people.
Keep your tone conversational and approachable, and look for information together when you don’t know the answer to a question. Kids look to adults for answers, but it’s also important to show them that we can all rely on others to help when we’re not sure about something. This also is presents an opportunity to discuss digital literacy with your kids by sourcing accurate information, understanding the difference between real and fake news sites, and spotting the difference between reported articles and opinions.
After taking time to process the Roe news, my daughter decided to combine her artistic skills with her social media savvy to engage in her own activism and add her voice to the conversation.
Like many who came before her, she’s finding her way to speak up for the greater good. It’s a start.